Surprise visit by President Macron to Saudi Arabia

Due to fly back from Abu Dhabi to Paris, President Macron decided to visit the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. What is the background to this surprise visit, and what does it aim to achieve?

On 9 November 2017, as he was winding up his brief visit to Abu Dhabi where he and Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan had inaugurated a branch of the Louvre Museum, plans were changed at the behest of the French president. A meeting with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman was quickly arranged. Considering that visits by heads of state are usually prepared well in advance, this move took observers by surprise. What was its purpose?

It is worth going back a few years to gather a few threads. In May 2017, the French polymath Jacques Attali was invited to Riyadh where the newly appointed Crown Prince consulted him on economic reforms. It is also worth remembering that a decade earlier, in 2007, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy had set up a commission on how to expand the French economy, and Attali was appointed as its chair. Attali picked Emmanuel Macron, then a banker quite unknown to the general public, to be the commission’s rapporteur.

Over the past few days, tensions have flared between Riyadh and Tehran over Lebanon and Yemen, but these regional tensions have been festering for many years. As the French weekly Le Point pointed out: ”The French president warned that even beyond Syria and Iraq, ‘in several areas, from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf, and extending as far as South-East Asia and the Sahel-Sahara region, this fight (against terrorism) will continue for many years, including with military means.”

”It’s complicated”

The reasons for Macron’s surprise visit to Riyadh are emerging: it is a very visible sign of support for Saudi Arabia a few days after it was the target of a missile launched from Yemen, while at the same time it underlines the French position that isolating Iran will not serve the higher goal of achieving regional stability. The expression ”while at the same time” is a crucial feature of the French president’s visit to Riyadh, and indeed he has recognized that it is a feature of his personality: the world is complex, and quite often binary solutions are inadequate to solve multi-layered problems.

SPA, the Saudi news agency, wrote: ”Prince Salman and his visitor discussed recent developments in the Middle East, and their efforts in favour of security and stability in the region, including through coordinated efforts against terrorism.” France Info reported this on the missile launched against Saudi Arabia: ”Regarding Yemen, the French president has condemned the missile attack on Riyadh by the (rebel) Houthis [supported by Iran], and underlined French support for the Kingdom.”

Macron’s frequent use of the expression ”at the same time”, with regard to French domestic politics, says something about his brief visit to Riyadh. During a short press conference while he was still in Abu Dhabi, Macron stated: ”I’ve heard very harsh statements by Saudi Arabia against Iran, and in my opinion that is not warranted.” And he added: “I think it is of prime importance to work with Saudi Arabia for regional stability, as we enjoy a very close bilateral relationship.”

In other words, showing consideration for the Saudi leader also helps to preserve the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear activity, which President Trump has called into question. At the time of that statement on the Iran nuclear agreement, Macron had added that this “had to be preserved” but also “completed by two pillars, a negotiation on the ballistic activity of Iran, if necessary with sanctions, and a strategic discussion to contain Iranian hegemony in the whole region.”

Hariri not sought asylum in France

In the same France Info piece, Macron is said to have indicated that ”informal contacts” have been established with former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and that the latter has not asked for asylum in France. Hariri was reported to have been detained in Riyadh having made an extraordinary public resignation early in the week in which he said he feared for his personal safety. (His father, Rafic, was assassinated in 2005 by a powerful car bomb widely blamed on shadowy Syrian forces, but for which supporters of the Lebanese Hezbollah have faced trial.)

Macron added that he is maintaining his plan for 2018 to visit Lebanon, which France administered between the two world wars under a mandate from the League of Nations. This is also reported by L’Orient Le Jour, the French-language daily in Lebanon, which adds an interesting indication on what seems to be Moscow’s position in the Hariri crisis.

”Hariri’s resignation (or dismissal) ‘infringes upon the sovereignty of Lebanon”’ – Russian ambassador to Lebanon

The daily reported that the Russian ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, had stated that Hariri’s resignation (or dismissal) “infringes upon the sovereignty of Lebanon and thus might need to be examined by the UN Security Council.” This was “a blatant interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon.” L’Orient  added that the Russian representative, along with other members of the diplomatic corps in Lebanon, was due to attend a meeting at the Baabda Palace (the presidential office in Beirut) on 10 November 2017, on the fifth day of consultations conducted by the head of state about the suspected ”dismissal” of the Lebanese prime minister.

If anything, the surprise visit to Riyadh shows that the French president considers that instability and strife in the Middle East have global repercussions, on migration patterns as well as on terrorism, in Europe and elsewhere. It further illustrates Macron’s view that complex situations cannot be resolved with simplistic, binary solutions: tackling various aspects of a complex situation ”at the same time” also has operational value.

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